Strategic Thinking Series #2: Using Strategic Thinking To Analyze The Bigger Picture
In the first article of the Strategic Thinking Series, we defined the basic concepts and phases in preparing for this process. In this part, we dive deeper into the objectives of specific teams and the organization as a whole that will allow us to see the big picture. Strategic thinkers continually improve their view of the larger company ecosystem which they operate in daily. They understand the company’s and their team’s goals. They have to stay up to date on the issues and concerns of their clients, competitors and industry. They do all this with a long-term perspective rather than focusing on short term implications.
Articles In This Series (all articles in this series will be added here):
- Strategic Thinking Series #1: How To Introduce Strategic Thinking In Project Management
- Strategic Thinking Series #2: Using Strategic Thinking To Analyze The Bigger Picture
Understanding Your Company’s Strategies
Awareness of your company’s strategies is crucial to your ability to work strategically. Do whatever it takes to understand the corporate strategy and how it affects your daily work. Talk with your boss and managers, examine reports and other company documentation, and listen to your CEO’s speeches on internal meetings. Sometimes the way in which executives allocate resources in your company can suggest something about the c-level strategy. If you discover the company is interesting in acquisitions of competing firms you might deduce that its strategy involves erasing rivals and growing its market share. Then use your understanding of this strategy to ensure that you and your team support it. For example, let’s say you expect your company to expand into new markets in the near future. You can use this knowledge of the high-level strategy to define your group’s direction.
- If you lead a product development group, you might evaluate the appeal that your existing products have in the targeted markets.
- If you lead a market research group, you may want to design surveys and other tools for testing potential interest in your company’s offering in the intended new market.
With every important decision that you face, ask yourself: „Will what I’m considering doing help my company carry out its strategy or will my proposed course of action make it more difficult for us to achieve our strategic goals?”.
How To Understand Company Strategies In 5 Steps
- Determine whether your company has strategic plans.
- Talk with your boss about your corporate and unit strategies.
- Ask for your managers perspectives on company and unit strategies.
- Observe the decisions and messages that executives are communicating.
- Discuss your company’s strategies with others.
Analyzing Clients, Competitors And The Industry
When thinking strategically, you need to consider what’s going on outside your company as well as inside. That means staying up to date with external clients’ needs, competitors moves, and industry trends. For example, if you work in sales, you’ll need to know your clients, competitors, and industry intimately. If you work in productions, however, you may not need to study your company’s competitions quite as closely.
To assess the situation outside your company, ask these questions:
- Client-oriented questions: „Who are our clients, and what do they value? How might their needs evolve in the future?”
- Competition-related questions: „Who are our current competitors, and what tactics are they using? How are we different from them? What strengths do they have that might prove a threat to us? What weakness might they have that we could exploit?”
- Industry-related questions: „What trends – in technology, natural resources, policy, and other key forces shaping our industry- might have important implications for our business?”
Considering Internal Stakeholders’ Priorities
It’s also important to take into account how your choices and ideas will affect the people around you in your organization – your supervisors, managers of other units and teams, and your direct reports. All these people are internal stakeholders in any important decision you make. Some may have an interest in the decisions outcome. Others will be completely affected by that outcome. Some may want to destroy your plans or even oppose your course of action outright. Whatever the case is, you’ll need their support to implement your decision. The following plan can help you systematically consider your internal stakeholders’ needs and interests:
- Identify potential stakeholders and their interests.
- Gather information from stakeholders.
- Listen carefully to underlying issues.
For example, let’s suppose you advocate for implementing a new customer database to better manage customer relationships. This idea may raise concerns for several stakeholders. The IT department will need to spend extra time researching and installing the database. Your co-workers will have to learn how to use the new workflow. The finance unit may be concerned about the cost. Managers in other groups may not want to take the time to input clients data from their records. As time seems to be a common concern, you might propose a short pilot project that enables everyone to test the new database quickly before deciding whether to commit resources to a larger initiative.
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Articulating Strategic Objectives
Once you’ve gained a sense of the big picture, it’s time to clarify your strategic objectives. That is, you need to determine what you hope to achieve through strategic thinking. Your boss, you, and the projects you think could generate strategic value can be important sources of information on objectives, it’s important to articulate them effectively.
Understanding Your Supervisor’s Objectives
Often it will be your CEO who will define the strategic target for you. For example by saying „we need to cut costs to improve company profitability”. But if such objectives are presented in an unclear or overly general language, confusion may occur. For instance, you might think you’re satisfying the cost-cutting authorization by reducing expenses in your immediate group – only to discover that your boss wanted to implement broader scale programs to cut costs across the entire unit. To avoid such misunderstanding, ask your boss questions about the objectives they have defined for you. You can ask the following questions:
- Where in our company do we need to focus our cost cutting efforts?
- Which process am I free to change in order to cut costs, and which processes must remain untouched?
- What scale of cost-cutting are we aiming for?
Also, offer additional ideas about the objectives your boss has defined. For instance: „are there different objectives that can help us further enhance the company’s profitability – such as boosting sales in addition to cutting costs? If we cut costs in this particular area, would these changes affect other areas of the company in ways that could ultimately raise costs and defeat our purpose?”. Taking a broader perspective and asking questions about how your potential actions will affect others are hallmarks of strategic thinking.
PRO TIP: Don’t assume you understand objectives mandated by your boss. Ask questions to gain the most specific possible understanding of what your boss wants you to achieve. Then augment your boss’s idea. Offer ideas for additional objectives that might generate valuable strategic results for your group and company.
Defining Your Own Objectives
In addition to handling immediate objectives presented by your boss, you also need to define your own long-term objectives for your team and yourself. To do that, make time to regularly ask yourself questions such as:
- What should my team be doing in five years to make the best possible contribution to the company?
- What business will our organization be in five or ten years from now, and how can my group support that business?
- What changes might be approaching on the business horizon, and how can my group best plan for and benefit from those changes?
By regularly asking such questions and gaining insight and approval from your boss on the strategic objectives for your group, you help ensure that your group stays on track and that their work aligns with corporate strategy.
Identifying Project-related Objectives
Let’s say that you’ve come up with ideas for projects that you believe will create important strategic value for your organization. For example, suppose you’re a manager in the IT department and you propose developing a new database that will enable the company to acquire and analyze more comprehensive and accurate information about customers preferences and purchasing decisions. In your mind, the project’s objectives is clear: to improve knowledge of customer preferences so as to serve them more profitability. But other managers may have additional objectives in mind for the project – such as extracting customer reports in new formats, and so on. If you try to satisfy all these objectives, the project scope may soon balloon to impossible proportions. Results? Resources end up getting spread too thin, and the project fails. To think strategically in such situations, you need to clarify the strategic priority that the project is intended to serve. Here are some questions that can help you ensure that your project supports strategic objectives and balances the needs of various stakeholders with higher-level strategy:
- What is the perceived strategic need that this project is intended to satisfy?
- Who has a stake in the solution or the outcome?
- How do the various stakeholders’ goals for the project differ? Do their goals align with the higher-level strategic goals we’re trying to achieve through this project?
- Are there other projects that would help us better satisfy the strategic needs we’ve identified? If so, what are they? And how do they compare to the currently proposed project – in terms of costs, feasibility, and so forth?
Making Your Objectives SMART
Whether your objectives have been given to you by your boss or you’re creating your own objectives, make sure they are SMART – Specific, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. If you’re looking for an experienced business partner that understands strategic thinking and uses it in their daily work – contact us and we will come up with solutions that will help you improve your business and provide great value to your customers through SMART solutions.